Like many parents, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins was looking forward to getting his daughter back to in-person learning at Dallas ISD. As the Delta COVID-19 variant began to ramp up in North Texas, though, a return to a “normal” school year became increasingly unlikely.
Earlier this year, Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order banning school districts from implementing mask mandates. But on Monday, Dallas ISD became the first district to flout the order by announcing a temporary mask requirement for students, staff and visitors.
As a parent, resident and county judge, Jenkins said he’s proud of the district’s move. He believes it will help to protect Dallas ISD kids and hopes that other school districts soon follow suit.
“When someone stands up, others will stand up as well,” he said. “You’re going to see more and more districts do this because of the courageous actions of DISD. And I think you’re going to see more and more cities and counties do what we’ve done here in Dallas County.”
Dallas ISD’s act of defiance comes as teacher advocates are calling on the governor to rescind his ban on districtwide mask mandates. At the same time, districts won’t receive state funding for virtual learning this year, ramping up anxiety among parents who aren’t ready to send their kids back to school.
Even still, Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said during a Monday morning press conference that the district is looking into offering a virtual learning option. In the meantime, the district’s mask requirement is a “temporary solution to a situation that has gotten very grave,” he said.
“Despite whatever authority the governor has, he’s responsible for the state of Texas. I’m responsible for Dallas ISD,” Hinojosa said.
It’s unclear what type of penalty Hinojosa or the district will face, if any. Those who defy Abbott’s order could get slapped with a $1,000 fine, but Hinojosa said it’s a consequence he’s willing to face.
“This is potentially a matter of student and educator lives.” – Clay Robison, TSTA spokesman
Abbott’s office did not return the Observer’s request for comment by publication time. But in a July statement, he emphasized “personal responsibility,” saying “Texans have mastered” COVID-19 safety practices.
I issued an executive order providing uniformity in Texas’ COVID response—we must rely on personal responsibility, not gov’t mandates.
Texans will decide for themselves whether they’ll wear masks & open businesses.
Vaccines are the best defense & will always remain voluntary. pic.twitter.com/3lIOt5BYZ0
— Greg Abbott (@GregAbbott_TX) July 29, 2021
But Rena Honea, president of Dallas’ Alliance/AFT teachers union, sees it differently. She said it’s the governor’s job to provide safety for all Texans, a responsibility that Abbott has “shirked.” By preventing mask mandates during a spike in cases and hospitalizations, Honea believes Abbott has put many in harm’s way.
Honea is grateful that Dallas ISD leadership is listening to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends all students and teachers wear masks regardless of vaccination status. Dallas County recently raised the COVID-19 risk back to “red,” the most severe threat level.
“Even though wearing masks is controversial for some, we feel it is a very good way to add another layer of protection,” Honea said.
It’s “flat-out wrong” to prevent districts from requiring masks in schools, especially since children younger than 12 can’t get vaccinated, said Clay Robison, spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA). Many teachers and parents are concerned about a return to in-person instruction, and TSTA encourages other districts to ignore the governor’s “politically motivated order.”
“This is potentially a matter of student and educator lives,” Robison said. “The pandemic is still dangerous, and it is dangerous for the governor to not allow school districts to require masks in their school buildings.”
Some districts have mulled taking similar measures, with Houston ISD’s superintendent announcing last week that he would propose a mask mandate. For other North Texas districts, though, it’s business as usual.
On Monday, Fort Worth ISD announced it will “strongly encourage” that faculty and students wear masks but will not mandate them. And last Thursday, Keene ISD hosted a rally in which hundreds of students and teachers danced and sang in close proximity, with few masks in sight, according to WFAA.
The school year is also starting at a time of skyrocketing COVID-19 hospitalizations.
Over the past two weeks, hospitalizations have increased by 101% in Dallas County, according to UT Southwestern. Jenkins said on Monday afternoon that there are around a dozen adult ICU beds left in the entire county, with zero beds available for children.
Moving forward, Jenkins believes more districts will follow Dallas ISD’s lead in requiring masks, which will also work to keep hospitalizations down.
“Ultimately, what we’re going to find out is that the governor has overstepped the authority given him in the law, and that those of us who want to protect public health are going to be able to work to do that,” he said.